Summarizing Billy Graham’s life and legacy in four words
As scholars determine the legacy of evangelist Billy Graham, who passed peacefully in his sleep the morning of Feb. 21, 2018, when he was called home by the Lord he so faithfully served for most of his 99 years, I have been reflecting on some of the defining characteristics I observed while serving as his personal media spokesperson for more than three decades.
Through the years, many reporters have asked me to sum up Billy Graham’s life and legacy in one word. But in response, I have to use four: humility, integrity, authenticity and love — each of which I have observed consistently in my travels with him.
In July 1999, I accompanied Mr. Graham to the local NBC affiliate in Jacksonville, where he did a remote interview with Katie Couric on Today. While waiting in the green room, the floor producer asked me if he would be willing to sign her copy of his recently published memoirs, Just As I Am.
Despite symptoms of Parkinson’s that made writing difficult, the evangelist was happy to oblige, which so touched the young woman that she asked Mr. Graham if she could pray for him. That moved me deeply, as it was the first time in my then-quarter century of traveling with him that someone took such an initiative, rather than asking him to offer a prayer on his or her behalf.
Katie Couric smallerAfter the producer left the room, Mr. Graham turned to me and said genuinely, “I have never understood why in the world anyone would want my autograph.” At first, I thought he was joking, but then realized his puzzled sincerity was reflective of his self-identification as “a country boy called to preach,” who could not fathom why the Lord chose him to be blessed with such spiritual responsibility and global opportunity.
As best I could, I tried to clarify for Mr. Graham what his inscription in her book meant to that young woman and others who made similar requests through the years, explaining his obvious influence and the significant impact of his ministry on her, since she had made a faith commitment at one of his crusades as a teenager. To my surprise, he responded, somewhat matter-of-factly, “I have only asked for one autograph in my whole life.”
Now it was I who was flummoxed, as I sat in stunned silence trying to determine who that individual would have been, going over in my mind myriad celebrities, influencers and world changers Mr. Graham had met during his travels.
At first, I thought it was Babe Ruth, whom I knew he greeted after a ballgame when he was twelve years old. My second candidate was President Truman, whom he met on his first visit to the White House in the early 1950s. Or possibly it was Winston Churchill, who summoned the young evangelist to his chambers after his successful mission at Wembley Stadium in 1954 to ask him the secret of gathering such huge crowds (which Billy Graham explained was due to the Holy Spirit, not anything he had done).
When I sheepishly turned to Mr. Graham and asked if any of these individuals had been worthy of such a request, he said, “No.” Acknowledging I would probably never be able to guess, he explained, “It was John Glenn. He and I sat next to each other at the March 1998 TIME magazine 75th anniversary gala at Radio City Music Hall honoring all living cover subjects.
“As we got up to leave, John asked me for my autograph,” Mr. Graham continued. “I replied, ‘I’ve never asked anyone in my whole life to sign something. Could I have yours?’ And so, we swapped autographs!”
Cliff Barrows with Billy Graham smallerAmong the many examples of Mr. Graham’s personal, spiritual and financial integrity, I remember when he kicked off the twelve-week, six-city Mission England tour the summer of 1984 in Bristol, west of London. In their coverage of the opening service, local papers appealed to their readers’ British reserve through articles criticizing the “emotionalism” of the American evangelist’s meeting. Their evidence was the fact that the choir sang softly during his invitation for people to come forward to make a faith commitment.
So, for only the second time in the history of their ministry, before the start of the meeting the next evening, Mr. Graham told program director Cliff Barrows to refrain from having the choir sing during the invitation. But the next day, the headlines in the paper read, “The Emotionalism was in the Silence,” and Mr. Graham decided that if he was going to get criticized, they should at least do it right, and they went back to the choir accompaniment for the rest of the mission — and ever since.
In August 2005, just two months after he had preached his final crusade in New York City, I went to visit Mr. Graham at his log cabin home in western North Carolina. On the flight to Asheville, I reflected on an observation shared by a pastor friend that every individual needs three things in order to find fulfillment in life: someone to love, something to do and something to anticipate.
As I drove up the mountain to call on Mr. Graham, I realized that for the first time in more than six decades the evangelist had only two out of three of those elements. He still had Ruth, his marriage and ministry partner of then sixty-one years; he was working on a new book and remained regularly engaged with the ministry he founded; but he could not look forward to another crusade planned for the near future.
Larry Ross with Billy Graham smaller useI knew that Billy Graham always believed and lived what he preached, but I wondered how that applied to his current life stage. What mindset would I encounter in the forward-thinking evangelist, who had always focused on the next thing and who had been a part of current events on the world stage since the Truman administration?
While sitting together on his back porch for several hours, eventually watching the sun start to set over his beloved Blue Ridge Mountains, I asked Mr. Graham how he felt. He replied, “I have never been more at peace in my life. My wife Ruth has been there for me as I traveled the world in itinerant ministry. But with her recent medical needs, it is now time for me to take care of her. God has enabled me to do that, and I am looking forward to spending more time together.” Ruth passed in 2007.
During my most recent visit to Mr. Graham’s home, despite physical limitations of his own, I found him once again filled with passion and purpose. As he sat in his favorite chair in the den, he told me how he felt called to deliver one more sermon about the need for renewal in the Church and revival across America.
It was obvious that, though his body might be physically weakened, the heart of the evangelist continued to beat. He had already selected his text, Galatians 6:14, which he had posted in big letters on the wall beside him and recited to me, “’May I never boast, except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…’” In his characteristic authenticity and transparency, he then stressed that when he got to heaven he was going to lay any awards and rewards received in this life at the feet of Jesus.
Leadership with Love
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to share the story about Mr. Graham and John Glenn at the TIME gala with a former bureau chief of the magazine. He smiled, acknowledging that he was at that event, and told me I needed to know “the rest of the story.”
He then informed me that the black-tie dinner in question was held in March 1998, during the period following President Bill Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. Minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, organizers were in crisis mode, as iconic sports figure Joe DiMaggio had refused to sit next to the President at the head table.
Bill Clinton with Billy Graham smallerFurther, no other celebrity or marquee figure in attendance would accept that offer and they seemed reluctant to be photographed with him in the midst of the political kerfuffle. When Billy Graham was approached about the situation, he declared, “I’ll sit next to the President. He’s my friend!”
What mattered most to Mr. Graham was to faithfully lift up the name of Jesus with authenticity and integrity to the great and the low, the high and the humble. Though he never compromised the Gospel or the dimension of the reality of God’s judgment, unlike some other Christian leaders whose messages come across as condemning, in my experience Mr. Graham always functioned as a “paramedic,” rather than a “policeman,” for the Kingdom of God.
Billy Graham represented a balance of grace and truth. He was a man of humility, integrity, authenticity and an agent of God’s love, who despite his many gifts and ability, the Lord used more for his availability. He had an audience of One, and would consistently “suit up and show up,” leaving the results to the Lord he served, and giving all the glory and honor to God, knowing that he was operating with faith in His strength and power from above.
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